The Silkworm Legend
Silk has its origins in China. According to them, the first person to discover it was the Yellow Emperor’s consort, Hsi Leng Shih in 3,000 BC. One day she sat under a mulberry tree in the royal garden to enjoy her tea. A cocoon fell from above into the hot liquid. When it did the strong silk thread unwound itself. The empress began raising silkworm and also invented the loom. In honor of her discovery, they gave her the title “Silk Goddess.”
Archeological Evidence of Silk
A recent archeological discovery appears to contradict this legend. It is a cup made from ivory and inscribed with silkworm designs. Along with the cup, they also found silk-making equipment. The items are believed to be about 6,000 to 7,000 years old. This has led experts to believe that silk must have been invented some 10,000 years ago!
Excavations in China reveal further evidence of silkworm farming. In 1927 they found part of a cocoon along the Yellow River. It was estimated to be from between 2,500 to 2,300 years BC. Another find was a group of threads, ribbons and other pieces of silk dating as far as back 3,000 BC. These were unearthed in Zhejiang province.
Use of Silk
Silk was highly prized by the Chinese. At first, only royalty could wear it, notably the Emperor, his chief consort and his heir. Favored colors were white and yellow. Commoners were banned from using it. However people used silk in other ways. They would use it as parts for bow strings, musical instruments and fishing equipment. Silk was even used as currency. Eventually the old laws went lax and everyone could wear silk just like their king.
Silk was quite vital to the Chinese economy, and it was also a symbol of royalty. Because of this, silk became a closely guarded secret. Anyone who revealed the methods of silk making or shared the materials outside risked being put to death.
Discovery of Silk by Other Countries
But no matter how much the Chinese government wanted to keep the benefits of silk to themselves, they couldn’t stop emigrants from squealing. As the Chinese traveled across Asia around 200 BC, so did their trade secret. Soon India and Persia began weaving their own silk threads.
Silk made its way to Europe via the Persians in the 1200s. Italy hired thousands of their silk makers to man the first silk farm in the region. Today this silk is made throughout the world. But its birthplace, China, remains the biggest manufacturer of this wonderful material.